I. GOD AND THE COVENANT WITH ISRAEL
Judaism is the only religion of antiquity to survive with undiminished vitality, proclaiming in constant refrain that there is but one God, Creator of heaven and earth, and Lord of all. Relatively speaking, there are not many Jews in the world, perhaps twelve million at the most. But Judaism has two daughters, born out of her beliefs and her traditions, both keeping her scriptures sacred. Christianity claims almost six hundred million adherents, Islam half that number.
The Muslim on Friday, the Jew on Saturday, and the Christian on Sunday - all three speak of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as our fathers, venerate Moses and the commandments given to him, and honor the prophets. The Christian accepts the Old Testament, but he interprets it through the New Testament. The Muslim accepts both the Old Testament and the New Testament, but he interprets them through the Koran. What about the Jew? He rejoices that he has the Book of books, but he also has the Talmud and the recorded responses of the rabbis through the centuries. Although any study of Judaism must begin with the Old Testament, if it ends there the picture of Judaism is only half complete.
Perhaps we should begin with the question, What is a Jew? The answer involves a brief jump into history. Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, and the father of a land-holding tribe. After the death of Solomon the kingdom of the Hebrews was divided, and ultimately the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom were lost. The Southern Kingdom was known as Judah and comprised only the large tribe of Judah, the small tribe of Benjamin, and the Levites, the tribe of those who served the Lord. But the term Judean, or Jew, as applied to a member of Judah, did not come into common usage until after Jerusalem was laid waste and the Temple destroyed, in 587 B.C., and the period of the Exile had begun. Of course, this tells us only how the name originated. It does not answer the question, What is a Jew?
The religious answer is that a Jew is a part of a believing community which has its roots in the ancient past and holds certain conceptions of God and man and their essential relationship to each other, and that he is one who accepts these beliefs for himself. Note the emphasis upon community. The Jews, in a very real sense, have thought of themselves as a holy people, a people set apart from the world to do Gods will. The community finds its meaning in the Covenant of God with Israel. Consequently, the cohesive force, the thing that has held Jews together, has been a design for living.
The Jew finds his basic beliefs about God and the community of Israel set forth in his Bible (the Old Testament of the Protestant Christian Bible). God is presented as the Creator, Judge, and Redeemer. These aspects of his nature are so interrelated that they cannot be separated except for purposes of exposition. God, as the Creator of all that is, has a purpose for the world which he has made. In relation to that purpose, he is a Judge, his judgment always tempered by mercy, because he loves his people and punishes them only that they may forsake their wicked ways and follow the path of righteousness.
GOD THE CREATOR, JUDGE, AND REDEEMER
All of us are familiar with the opening words of the Bible: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth ( Gen. 1:1). Why is there a universe and why are there human beings, and what is the meaning of life? God alone can provide the answers, for he alone is the cause and explanation of all that is. It is not surprising that the Bible people tried to understand themselves in relationship to God; there was no other way in which they could understand themselves. All that has been, is, or ever will be has its source and origin in God.
Judaism insists upon the oneness, or uniqueness, of God - which simply means, on the one hand, that there are no other gods and, on the other, that God is essentially a unified being who cannot be divided. It was the insistence upon this unity of God that prevented the Jewish people from doing obeisance before the emblems of their conquerors. It has also caused Jews to view Christianity with some suspicion, because of the fear that Christians so divide the manifestations of God that he seems to be more than one.
God is beyond complete explanation. He is holy, standing high above his creation. Man must never forget the majesty and glory of God nor attempt to storm the citadels of heaven as did those who attempted to build the Tower of Babel. God cannot be represented by a graven image, nor can he be defined fully with words, because God is without limit. He is a being whom we can most assuredly know, but never fully and completely. Gods holiness was so respected by the Bible people that his name was never uttered when it appeared in the Scriptures as JHVH (the consonants only); other and less personal Hebrew words meaning Lord were substituted. This is why many Jews today use the form G_d in writing, for fear of profaning His holy name.
Many of the neighbors of the ancient Jews thought of their gods as being ambitious, immoral, and suffering from various deficiencies. In contrast, the God of the Bible is without flaws. He is perfect. He is so all-pervading that he cannot be measured. No time can limit him; he is everlasting - My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass. But thou, O Lord, art enthroned for ever; thy name endures to all generations (Ps. 102:11-12).
God is omniscient, knowing all things -Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. Thou acquainted with all my ways (Ps. 139:2-3 )
God is omnipresent, being everywhere - If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Ps. 139:7-10).
God is omnipotent, which means not only that he is all-powerful but that all power comes from him. The vast energy within the atom has its source, and that source is God.
Although God is high and lifted up, he is not remote. God has sometimes been defined by philosophers as the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, the Cosmic Force, and nothing more. But the God of the Bible is more than these abstractions. He is personal, not with the limitations we attach to human beings, but in the sense that he can come into an intimate, dynamic relationship with them. God can speak to individuals, can lead and direct them, can give them power and strength, can be a companion to them in their daily tasks. Some moderns have been a little embarrassed by what they call the crude anthropomorphisms of the Bible, where God is presented as being very much like a mortal male, but these descriptions are in the Bible in order to preserve the idea of the personal encounter that men can have with God.
Finally, the biblical God is powerfully alive, not in the sense of growing old, but in terms of his continuing activity. The creation of this living God is not over. Creation continues-and God is the Creator, working in the hearts of men and in the affairs of history.
God is the ruler of the world, the King of kings, and as a sovereign demands conformity to his will. He is not a tyrant, capricious and arbitrary, but is just and completely dependable. He demands obedience, not because of some whim, but because obedience to his will is for the best interest of the community and the individual. Therefore the community and the individual must be taught that a deviation from Gods commands will not be tolerated.
The idea of judgment has lost much of its power today, but the Bible is unequivocal in the declaration that every man is accountable and that his deeds will be weighed in a balance. The wicked may seem to escape for a day, but they cannot escape forever - Gods wrath will be visited upon them. But justice is also mingled with mercy.
It has been suggested that justice without mercy is cruelty. God is not cruel. He is patient and longsuffering. He speaks words of warning. When nothing else will do, he punishes his people, not for revenge, but to lead them to repentance and a change of life.
Too often we have forgotten that the King of the universe is also the Father of men in the Old Testament. The references to God the Father are more implicit than explicit in the words of scripture; but the Rabbis,1 in their prayers, liturgies, and writings long before the birth of Jesus, made the statements specific. There is no suggestion of surprise when Jesus begins the Lords Prayer with Our father, who art in heaven. The paternal term was already well established.
God is always eager to forgive the penitent sinner - Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon (Isa. 55: 6-7). Even more, Gods love is so great that he takes the initiative - For thus says the Lord God: Behold I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep (Ezek. 34:11-12). Therefore, man can say with confidence, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want (Ps. 23:1).
The Covenant With Israel
It was in terms of the Covenant that the Hebrew people achieved their sense of destiny, which gave them not only a vision of the kingdom of God on earth but also courage and strength in the face of adversity.
The Covenant was preceded by the deliverance of the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt. But after the Covenant was established, the people realized that God had always been at work, guiding and directing them. They realized that God had spoken to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he had saved Joseph to serve his people, and that finally he had raised up Moses to be his special agent in deliverance.
The Ten Commandments constitute the core of the Covenant. They are represented on two tablets and, in abbreviated form, are as follows:2
I I am the Lord your God II You shall have no other Gods before me; You shall not make yourself a graven image III You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain IV Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy V Honor your father and your mother
VI You shall not kill VII You shall not commit adultery VIII You shall not steal IX You shall not bear false witness X You shall not covet
The first commandment, I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exod. 20:2), sets the stage for the other commandments. God has taken the initiative in the covenant relationship, not man. Theologically, it indicates that Gods grace precedes his command. In a psychological framework, it is because of what God has done that man should respond in gratitude by doing Gods will.
The five commandments on Tablet One express mans obligation to God, the fifth being placed in this category because it is through the parents that a child first knows of God, and the parents act as agents of God. The commandments on Tablet Two are common to almost all cultures, because they must be observed if there is to be social stability. Tablet Two is unique for only one reason, its relationship to Tablet One. According to the Covenant, the two tablets are indissolubly related. It is because of mans relationship to God that he has obligations to his neighbor.
The first tablet is summarized in the words, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deut. 6: 5) . The second tablet is summarized in the words, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18) . The interrelatedness of the two was always recognized by the Jews - and is, of course, expressed by Jesus in two of the Gospels (Mark 12:30; Matt. 22:37).
In practice, however, there was often tension between what one owed God and what one owed man. Related to this problem was the question of how to preserve in full purity and devotion the community of Gods chosen people while at the same time affirming that God is the Creator of the universe and Lord of all peoples and communities. If we view the Bible as a whole, we shall not only gain an understanding of the tensions but shall understand the roots of the divisions in Judaism today.
The demands of the Covenant included loyalty to God to the exclusion of other gods. It has never been easy to preserve the idea of only one God. It was particularly difficult to be loyal in a day when the existence of many gods was taken for granted. The problem was not whether God would be rejected, but whether he would be served exclusively. The real danger was syncretism, the absorption of foreign elements into the religion. It was a danger that Israel faced as she came under the political dominance of Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and countless other powers. The perennial problem was, and still is, how to keep the religion pure and undefiled.
Worship and Social Morality
One means adopted by Israel to preserve purity of devotion to God was an emphasis upon the rituals that proclaimed the exclusive allegiance of the people to God. Sacrifices were established for reconciliation and communion with God. Festivals were celebrated to commemorate God as the Creator of all nature, and to remind the people of the great events of the past through which God had demonstrated that he is Lord of history and especially concerned with his people Israel. The priests, as celebrants of the sacrificial rituals, were especially concerned with the observances of worship; but they were not alone in declaring that unless the rituals for the sacrifices and celebrations were properly observed, God would afflict the community.
However, there was then, as there always is, a danger that concern with the rituals of worship would detract from the importance of morality, of right personal and social conduct. The emphasis upon morality, we associate with the prophetic tradition. Nathan took David to task for appropriating another mans wife, and Elijah rebuked Ahab for killing a man to get his vineyard. But some of the prophets went even further. They claimed that the people were so convinced that their entire duty to God was fulfilled through sacrifices and ritualistic observances that their social consciences were dulled. Amos, for example, made it clear that the people were guilty of separating the worship of God from justice, truth, and righteousness. They were outwardly very religious, visiting the shrines frequently, offering sacrifices freely, tithing and even giving more than was required, and surely, they thought, God must be quite pleased. But Amos reminded them of the social conditions: wealth was squeezed from the poor by strong-arm methods and crooked business dealings; law courts favored the rich; the poor were getting poorer, and some were even being sold into slavery; the rich were getting drunk and carousing, and their wives were just as guilty. To the rich and irresponsible, Amos declared that social wrong spells national ruin.
We must not think of worship and morality as being diametrically opposed to each other. The priests never thought that loyalty to God as expressed through sacrifices, feasts, and fasts should be a substitute for ethical action. But when a prophet could sum up mans religious duties in the words, He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:8) - then the priest was bound to take some exception. Certainly the priests did not wish Judaism to degenerate into a religion of good works without regard to God as the source of all morality. The prophets, on the other hand, did not want to see worship used as a substitute for morality. The priests and prophets often seem to have been, and were, in conflict, but not on principle. Each was a balance to the emphasis of the other, as was recognized by those who preserved the records and incorporated them into the Bible.
Election as Privilege and Responsibility
Israel recognized her privileged position as the chosen nation of God. At an early period of Israels history it was assumed that because Israel had a special relationship to God, God would lead Israel to victory in battle and protect her in every other way. This assumption was modified subsequently, but there always remained the inclination to believe that God has a special obligation to serve Israel. Accompanying this inclination was the tendency to soften the ethical commands and to so emphasize the element of exclusiveness that no responsibility was felt for the rest of the world. The people were inclined to believe that they could concentrate upon retaining their purity and could await in confidence their complete vindication and triumph on the Day of the Lord.
In contrast, there was the prophetic declaration that privilege is a responsibility. For example, Amos said, in the name of God, You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities (3:2) . He suggested that the greater the privilege, the greater the responsibility and the greater the severity of judgment.
Israels privilege of knowing God and of having been taught a higher morality, according to a theme running throughout the Bible, has an implication for the entire world. It is through Israel that God will speak to all men. It is recorded that God said to Abraham, By you all the families of the earth will bless themselves (Gen. 12:3). Isaiah declared, in the name of God, I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations . . . (Isa. 42:6) . Israel is to proclaim to the Gentiles, Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other (Isa. 45:22); so that ultimately to me [God] every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear (Isa. 45:23).
Exclusiveness and Universalism
One means adopted to avoid contamination through syncretism was the prohibition of intermingling with non-Jews and the forbidding of marriage with them (Deut. 23:3; Neh. 13; Ezra 10:2-5). Nehemiah, concerned with preserving the traditions of Israel, observed that the children of mixed marriages could not even speak Hebrew, the language of Judah (Neh. 13:24). Not only was there the danger that the children would lose their convictions, but there was the question whether such a marriage actually defiled the holy people. If intermarriage desecrates not only a person of God but the people of God, then intermarriage is morally wrong under any and every circumstance. This position was accepted by Ezra and Nehemiah, but it was not to go unchallenged. The Book of Ruth presents the theme that intermarriage does not necessarily cause defilement. We are told that Boaz was permitted to marry Ruth, who was not an Israelite - she was a Moabitess - and that their marriage was given full community approval. Their son was Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David (Ruth 4:7), Israels greatest king.
The Book of Jonah was written as a protest against the fear of intermingling and as a reaffirmation that God is concerned with all people. Jonah was commanded by God to go to Nineveh, a foreign city of notorious wickedness. Jonah did not wish to be defiled and certainly had no desire to deliver a message that might cause the inhabitants of Nineveh to mend their ways and avoid Gods judgment. He therefore took a ship in another direction, but after being tossed into the sea and spending three days in the belly of a fish, he repented and agreed to fulfill his mission, although with some reluctance.
Observance and Encounter
Associated with the Covenant were not only the Ten Commandments but many other laws as well. One of the functions of the Levites was to give instruction in how God was to be worshiped and how he was to be served. The basic laws are found in the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible, considered together as the Pentateuch. Joshua commanded: This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it . . . (Josh. 1:8). Here is the Biblical theme which suggests that Israel may fulfill her obligations to God through obeying in detail all the laws and teachings of the Bible.
However, there is another theme, that does not contradict the importance of the observance of the laws, but gives another emphasis: And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I command you this day for your good (Deut. 10: 12-13). More is expressed than mere heeding of the commandments. To love and to serve suggest an attitude which is essentially personal, for they involve a commitment that can be made only on personal terms. How can one really measure love objectively? Out of this commitment can come imperatives to action that demand not less than the laws command, but more.
The danger with too much emphasis upon the personal encounter with God, the element of mystical devotion, is that the importance of guidelines to action can be forgotten; but too much emphasis upon observance of laws can detract from the importance of the personal divine-human encounter.
God in the Temple and Everywhere
The Bible relates that God has promised to be with his people. One of the early symbols of his presence was the portable Ark, which contained, according to tradition, the two stones on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. The Ark was kept in a tent, a place where God could always be found. Ultimately the Ark was taken to Jerusalem, making the city Zion, City of God. Around the Ark was built the Temple. As the Temple grew in importance, its priests achieved a greater position of pre-eminence. Some of the later prophets, like Ezekiel, thought of Israel as an ecclesiastical community with its focal point the Temple, where God lived with his people. The Temple stood at the center of everything (Ezek. 40-48), with all worship in terms of sacrifice and a priesthood located there.
There is another theme in the Bible which declares unequivocally that God is everywhere and meets people wherever they may be. For example, Jeremiah declared that those in exile and far from the Temple could have access to God through prayer (Jer. 29:12-14). Even earlier, we are told, God revealed his presence to Elijah in a still small voice (I Kings 19:12) .
Actually, sacrifices took place in many local places through much of Israels history; and after the Temple became the exclusive place for sacrifices, synagogues arose, which were local places for study and worship.
Community Solidarity and Personal Responsibility
The Covenant was interpreted as a bond between God and the people of Israel as a whole. Its demands and promises were interpreted as relating to the group, rather than to the individual. It was assumed that the community was called to be the kind of community desired by God and that if the community failed to live by Gods standards of justice and brotherly love, then it would be punished. War, famine, and even destruction were interpreted as Gods judgment upon the community. This theme preserves the idea of the interrelatedness of members in a society. We are influenced by society, but we also influence it and have a part in its destiny.
Exclusive emphasis upon the solidarity of the community can lead to the complaint expressed in the ancient proverb, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the childrens teeth are set on edge (Jer. 31:29). In reply, Jeremiah says, Every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge (Jer. 31:30). Without any denial of the importance of corporate solidarity or community responsibility, it was declared that every man must answer to God and that God would judge each individual on the basis of his personal responsibility.
Using the Bible as our chief reference, we have presented some of the basic beliefs about God and shown some of the tensions that existed as ways were sought for implementing the covenant relationship. The tensions were largely overcome as history eliminated some of the causes of conflict, and some of the themes were repressed. Those that were repressed were to arise with new force in the modern world and contribute to the divisions that now exist in Judaism.
1 Rabbi is capitalized when it refers to those rabbis whose opinions are cited in the Talmud or in the various Responsa and are considered authoritative in Orthodox Judaism.
2 The first Jewish commandment is accepted as a preface to all the commandments in Christianity. In most Protestant and in the Eastern Orthodox churches the first commandment is, You shall have no other gods before me, and the second is, You shall not make yourself a graven image. Beginning with the third commandment, the numbering corresponds to that in Judaism. The Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches list the Jewish second commandment, including both parts, as the first commandment. By their classification, the ninth commandment is You shall not covet your neighbors wife and the tenth commandment is You shall not covet your neighbors goods.